“ …came as soon as I could… the… it was hard to get a taxi… I”
The door bounced off the wall and back into Alex’s side, full of the same fraught energy that had opened it so fast.
His mum was sat in the corner of the darkened room on John’s old chair. Her eyes were red, her body hunched, thin. He’d never seen her looking so old, so frail.
“You didn’t spend too much did you?”
“Oh, I … yeah, I mean it was… at this time of day, the distance…”
“Here, take some money”.
His dad started to take his wallet from his trousers.
“Oh no, please…”
“Go on, you don’t get hardly anything to life off, I know what it’s like being a student”
“I… no really it’s…”
His words were lost already, sucked into the void around his grandfather’s bed. His breath, his voice, his heart. John stared at the ceiling, his eyes shut. His cheeks sagged unnaturally. They were red, mottled at the edges, yet the centres were an awful, awful pale white. His mouth remained open.
“What did…” Alex said after a near endless ten minutes of silence. “what happened?”
“We… we don’t know yet… we’re waiting for the coroners… they should be along any time…”
“where’s…. where’s Jo?”
“She’s… round at a friend’s, we didn’t think that… she didn’t… well, she’s still very young you know?”
“She… she didn’t want to be here?”
Alex’s dad came over and put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. Never before in his life had he felt so connected to his dad. Feelings of sorrow, inevitability and a fear of mortality, both in the real and the abstract, flowed from the body of the old man; through ever inch of Alex and into his father through that slight physical connection. Three generations bound to a single moment.
His mother remained sat in the corner, saying nothing, just staring quietly at the body of the old man. Little quirks and foibles of the building became both deafening and dissipated into insignificance against the silent white noise of grief.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
The three of them turned around to face the door. A man in a suit was already walking through, as if knocking was a formality and not something you had to wait for a response from.
“Oh, er, oh” said the man, before turning back to the care worker who was stood behind him.
“Oh, I thought, er, the, er, family were gone”
“Oh, I didn’t know that they were in here…”
The official looking man, who must have been from the coroner’s office turned back round to the family.
“Uh, well, take as much time as you need. We’ll just be out here or upstairs when you’re ready and we’ll take away the uh, uh gentleman”
The official man said ‘gentleman’ in a way that was clearly a substitute for ‘body’ or ‘it’. Later Alex would be hateful towards this man. Later still, understanding of the separations and objectification that one must have to go through in such a job, for the sake of one’s sanity. Right now, he was just trying not to weep.
The door was shut on them again.
“well…” said Michael, looking up at Lucy.
Lucy nodded and began to get up. She walked slowly over to the same side of the bed as the two men. Her two boys.
She then turned and faced the old man and sighed. Not cried, not stifled tears, just sighed.
“Poor old man” She said. “Poor old gent”
She leaned over and stroked his hair and kissed him on the forehead and walked towards the door without saying anything. Michael stroked his hair as well, before turning around and leaving.
“Come on son, let’s go”
Alex nodded and started to take baby steps to his grandfather’s body. Weights were tied around his ankles and the hands of the dead clawed at his feet, but still he walked. He reached over his grandfather’s body and brought his hand to his head. He looked so real, like he could wake at any moment, yet like nothing he’d ever seen before. Like looking and one of his dad’s digital approximations of a building, it was both real, and so obviously an imitation of what it was supposed to be. Remnants. A memory. Nothing.
He slowly stroked his grandfather’s hair.
Alex shut the door behind him.
Monday, 31 December 2012
Lucy stood at the front of her family and knocked on the door.
“The man you know as John is dead” came the muted reply from inside. Lucy turned to Michael. After a moment of confusion and another bitter reminder that there was little she could do, composed herself and held her finger out. The rest of her family waited at her command. They waited and caught snatches of the conversation that followed.
“….daughter…all the way…to see you”
“…don’t know… daughter”
The conversation dropped below and audible level. The dull roar of the ventilation system took its place, as did the sound of elderly programming on viewing station and the cries of someone upstairs.
“Dad…” asked Joanne, quietly, hesitantly. “Is granddad ok?”
“Um... yes, I’m sure he’s fine. Mum just needs to have a little talk with him on her own. I’m sure it’ll be ok”
“Hello there dad. How you doing.” Michael held his hand out. John, who was lying in bed, hesitantly held his own hand out.
“Oh uh, how do you do”
“This is Joanne, your granddaughter” Helped Lucy.
“And this surly one is your grandson Alex”
Alex stood back and waved. They all took seats facing in towards the bed.
“So… How are you, granddad?” Asked Alex.
“Oh, yes, you know… Can’t complain. They treat me nice here. It’s a nice place. I’ve had a lovely holiday but I can’t wait to get back home”
“Uh.. Do you know what day it is?” Asked Michael, thinking of the first thing off the top of his head.
“It’s a Wednesday.”
“It’s a Saturday. Do you know the date?”
“Is it October?”
“Its… Its June, dad… it’s the middle of summer. Let’s try for a year. Do you know the year?”
“I’d say it was the year… two thousand and… sixty five”
“Uh, no dad, its 2084”
“It is not! No!”
“Ha! It is, look at the calendar”
“So, I’ve had a very nice time here, but I’ll have to leave soon. They need the room for someone else”
“Oh yeah? So where are you going to?”
“Oh, I’m going everywhere”
“Yes. Everywhere. All around the world. All over the world”
Though a stilted and forced question, it was one that Lucy was genuinely interested in.
“Well, it’s got a bit interesting of late. We’ve started work on some areas south of the river, as you know. We’ve got into a place that they’ve recently opened up again, and it’s actually near where John’s from, from where he was born…”
“Did you hear that dad? Michael’s been working near where you were born”
“Oh good. Heh. That’s nice.”
“So, we’re looking at this row of houses near a park- it’s all the usual row housing, you know, but then there’s the remnants of this one on the end and its very unusual for the area. Its… well, it’s an unusual design, very grand- must predate the rest by at least 40 or 50 years… and another thing we’ve noticed is, well its suspected anyway- we won’t know for sure until its fully mapped and simmed, but one thing we- suspect- is that much of the damage took place a long time ago, much further back than the rest of the area… but it was just left there, just remained there… I get the feeling that this place is going to throw up a few surprises when we begin to document it fully. I mean, what I’ve already seen of the ground and basement levels…”
“It’s been very nice staying here, but they’re going to send me back very soon”
“Uh… there are various signifiers to suggest that, old though it is, this isn’t the first…”
“It’s not the sort of holiday I would have chosen”
“Uh… structure to be built…”
“…but you can’t complain can you?”
“Oh look dad, it’s almost time for your tea. What are you having today?”
“I don’t know. They’ll tell us later”
“Well… what did you have yesterday?”
“I had… uh… porkchops”
“You… had? Are you sure?”
“You… you’ve been a vegetarian all your life... Since you were born!”
“Don’t be so silly.”
Lucy looked shocked.
Michael interjected with the first thing he could think of to try and paint over the obvious.
“So… uh… we don’t know yet for sure but there is some indication that this house may have been used as some kind of commune or alternative/outsider lifestyle venture in the late 20th/ early 21st century”
“Uh, no not exactly, but in some ways, I mean, well done!”
Alex snorted and muttered “You’re not the only one that can read you know”.
“There were a lot of political communes, but some were political in the sense that they just sought to exist outside of the mainstream, as some kind of alternative, so I suppose there’s a case of similarities to be made… But were not sure how successful it was, how long it lasted, whether it was gone before the house…”
“I remember Paris. I remember going there in my twenties. I just got bored of living here and packed my bags and went to live in Paris for a while.”
They were never quite sure if these stories John would come out with had any basis in reality. The rest of the family looked at Lucy, the closest thing to a family historian. She would normally nod or shake her head. This time she just shrugged.
Monday, 17 December 2012
“Where we going then James?”
“I’m Alex, granddad! James’ nephew?”
“Of course you are”
We’re just gonna pop up the road. I thought since it was your birthday we’d go for a little drink.”
“In a pub”
“Really?” His face lit up.
“Yeah! Why not? Not sure mum would like it, but then…”
“… She’s not here is she?”
Alex put the two pints down on the table. Ale for himself, a dark stout for his grandfather. The liquid lopped down the side of the glass and discoloured the lacquer of the table, making it grey, white, like skin too long in the bath. He dropped the bag of crisps he’d been holding in his mouth and tore them up one side, exposing the contents and placed them in the middle of the table
“There you go!”
“Oh, you’re a good kid aint you? Now you sure you can afford…”
“Look, I told you mum left me some money for shopping and whatever. I think its alright to spend a bit on you, so let’s not hear any more about it”
“God, you’re your mother’s son alright”
“How do you mean?”
John just smiled and shook his head.
“You seem pretty at home in a pub, don’t you?”
“Go there sometimes at lunch in college. We’ve got one near us that doesn’t really care”
“You get served alright here?”
“Yeeeeeah, no problem”
The chatter in the public house got louder. It was about this time that Alex realised that he had no idea he was. The man sitting opposite him. He knew his granddad, he knew his mum’s dad, the old man with a voice like gravel and was the benchmark of everything that was factually and morally right and correct… but he had no idea who this man John was. It was hard to think of him as a man, as someone who had loved and desired
“How’s your pint?”
“Oh lovely, lovely. I haven’t had a nice black stout for year and years”
“So how are you getting on in there granddad?”
“In the home”
“The… oh the home. It’s ok. I have the paper each day. I’ve got my books, the art classes are nice.”
“I dunno. The place… it seems so stilted. Like it’s not your own place…”
“Well, it’s never gonna be like the home I made, is it? Look… Alice used to be a social worker OK. Watchu call them now… social fluidity agent? Social correction officer? Kind of like that type of thing. Less… I dunno. More well meaning. It seemed so anyway. Well, she saw some things. Some real dives. We’re talking about… forty years ago now. It was like a different world in many ways, but even now… you have to understand that this was before all the big ecological reforms, population control… medicines for the body were getting better but there wasn’t much for the mind. Still isn’t really. Hah. Look at me. I just start…”
“You were saying grandma was a social… worker?”
“Oh… yes… oh….”
“Yes… I was just… I don’t think elderly care has ever been a priority in any society. It’s an awful hypocrisy… Look, even with all this technology, the amazing things they can do these days… even with all the energy consumption legislature, even with the… look, we’re still in a society that doesn’t appreciate individual worth… it just makes you believe it does. It’s still a capitalist dictatorship marauding under the guise of some kind of freedom, democracy and… What I’m saying is that passed the age where you’re useful to society, it stops giving a damn about you. Because I was a teacher… it’s a job that directly benefits society, and it’s also a job that no bastard wants to do… especially not in a city… so I was guaranteed care in my older life that was of a certain standard. You read about the teaching crisis of ’48?”
“What, all the marches? And the riots?”
“That’s right. That kind of perk for social sector jobs came as a result. Well, between mine and your gran’s pensions… that place is OK. I’ve heard stories about awful, awful places that are still far about the legal minimum…”
“That’s right. That’s right. So do something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Write a letter, make a phone call, talk to people. If not about this, about something else… I’m not saying fight this cause, just… look further, look deeper, look behind things… I’m sorry, I’m going off. Just don’t think you have to accept things if they’re not right. You’re a good kid you know.”
The babble swelled up again.
“Did I ever tell you about my mum… your grandma”
“Of course, yeah”
“Not really. I didn’t meet her”
“No she died well before you were born. She was an amazing artist, you know. Had me young. Very young, barely 20 years between us. Did it on her own.”
“You didn’t have a dad”
“Not…I mean… no. No.”
“She… she could have been a great artist. She was, but you know what I mean. She worked hard to support me. I never wanted for anything, not attention or anything. She loved to draw and paint, to sculpt. But she loved me more. It was only when I had your uncle and your mother that I appreciated what she had done, how hard it must have been. When I look at you and your sister. It seems so easy now… not to say that it is, but this is the position you’ll find yourself in one day. Able to look back and say everything was either much better or much harder. Heh. But, I mean, you guys are OK. I helped make sure. You’re dad’s got a good old job… Uh what is he?”
“He’s… it’s kind of like archaeology. Preservation, restoration, documentation…
They’re looking at some of the places that they’ve reclaimed after the flooding, working out the structures...”
“Blimey… that’s… its… it’s interesting, it just feels a bit beyond me. But this is what I’m talking about, in as many ways as the world is different, its changed so much. It wasn’t easy back then. The infrastructure of the country was collapsing, the world was changing too quickly and no one really knew how to handle it. The climate. Everyone was saying things and no one was doing anything. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying each day and no one would even talk about it. Famines, floods, earthquakes. There’d be TV appeals, but nothing would really happen. When I think back on it, it seems like it was around the time that Castro stepped down… You know Fidel Castro?”
“Um… he was…”
“He was the leader of the communist party in Cuba”
“Oh right. So why was that then?”
“Timing maybe? The Maybe nothing at all. I don’t know. I think everything was heading to shit anyway, but looking back, when I started to take some kind of interest in it. You have to think I was very young when what I’m talking about happened. For some reason it feels like that was the point of no return”
It pleased Alex that his granddad would swear like that in front of him. So thoughtlessly, not shielding him. It was perhaps the first time he’d been treated as an individual, as a man. He felt proud that this was his grandfather. That they were together at this moment.
“Can I get you another one?”
“What’s the hurry?”